NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan announces more than 30 new partnerships between U.S. and Indian institutes for deeper ties through bilateral research.
National Science Foundation (NSF) Director Sethuraman Panchanathan (right) visited India in August 2022, where he met government officials, industry leaders, academics and students in New Delhi, Bengaluru, Vellore and Chennai.
The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is an $8.8 billion independent federal agency created by the U.S. Congress in 1950. It supports research and education across all fields of science and technology (except for medical sciences), primarily through grants.
Sethuraman Panchanathan, current director of NSF, has spent over three decades in higher education and government. He has designed and built knowledge enterprises to advance research innovation, entrepreneurship, global development and economic growth. Panchanathan previously served as the executive vice president of the Arizona State University Knowledge Enterprise, where he was also chief research and innovation officer.
Panchanathan received his master’s degree in electrical engineering from IIT Madras in 1986 after his bachelor’s degree in electronics and communication engineering from the Indian Institute of Science in 1984. He received a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Ottawa in 1989.
He visited India in August 2022, where he met with government officials, industry leaders, academics and students in New Delhi, Bengaluru, Vellore and Chennai.
Excerpts from an interview with SPAN magazine.
What brought you to India this August, and what was the most significant takeaway from the visit?
My visit to India was a natural extension of the conversations our nations’ leaders, including President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have been engaged in. They emphasize the long-lasting value of research and education partnerships in science and engineering that benefit citizens of both countries.
During my trip, I had the opportunity to meet and talk with many people in India who are passionate about science and engineering. Those conversations inspired me and renewed my appreciation for the incredible talent and ingenuity of the Indian scientific community.
Our past and current collaborations between researchers in the United States and India have yielded tremendous outcomes for our countries. As part of my visit, we announced more than 30 new partnerships between NSF and several Indian institutions, including the Indian Institute of Science, Indian Statistical Institute, and the Indian Institute of Technology campuses in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Jodhpur. I am optimistic for the future as I see what can be accomplished by the many researchers and students working with their counterparts and colleagues in the United States.
What are some of the key areas in science and technology where the United States and India can collaborate?
Our opportunities to collaborate and to learn from each other are in areas that the diverse citizens and communities of our two countries care deeply about and can benefit from. By working together, we can enable broader benefits of scientific research and technologies in many critical areas like environmental sustainability, agriculture, global health, national security and others.
One example of such a collaboration is our commitment to support bilateral research with the Indian Department of Science and Technology’s Technology Innovation Hubs. Those collaborations between researchers in the United States and India will leverage unique resources such as testbeds and datasets, expand work on important emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and advanced wireless communications, and encourage educational exchange.
In general, collaborative work in science and technology can help our countries better design solutions for global challenges including pandemics, and the effects of climate change.
What role do you think the U.S.-India partnership can play in driving an exchange of ideas in science?
I see the United States and India as partners. We have shared values in the pursuit of scientific knowledge that include research integrity, transparency and reciprocity. With that strong foundation, there is tremendous opportunity for collaboration between our two nations in all areas of science, technology and engineering.
While the core mission of our scientists and engineers is to advance the frontiers of research through discovery and innovation, it is through the power of our partnerships and collaborations that those discoveries generate positive societal impact.
Rigorous scientific research requires funding, oftentimes from several sources. How might the United States support such research here in India?
India is a recognized leader in scientific research and development in South Asia, and a global leader in fields such as information and communication technology, agriculture, affordable health care, energy and water technologies. That expertise and leadership meshes well with similar areas of expertise in the United States and presents many possibilities for future collaborations.
In partnership with India’s Department of Science and Technology, NSF is supporting bilateral research at U.S. institutions and India’s Technology Innovation Hubs. We are also proud to co-invest in a wide range of other research activities with Indian collaborators who are working to advance science, technology and education. In the past five years, NSF has made over 200 research awards involving Indian institutions and scientists, representing more than $145 million in research investments.
With NSF’s 75th anniversary coming up in three years, what is your vision for the role NSF will play in fostering partnerships to address global challenges?
NSF was founded in 1950 by the U.S. Congress to fulfill the promise of fundamental scientific research to not only increase our understanding of nature, but also to advance health, prosperity, welfare and security. And, while the world has changed a lot over the last seven decades, that mission remains just as important now as it was then.
As part of a global collaboration, built on shared democratic values, we envision science and technology as a key ingredient in fostering a more equitable and prosperous world. The sharing of ideas, resources and best practices between like-minded partners, including India, has always been at the heart of what NSF does.
The grand challenges we face today do not adhere to national borders, scientific disciplines or research timelines. Take increasingly extreme weather events like brutal heat waves and droughts. Those impacts are felt throughout our communities in ways that seemed unimaginable just decades ago. This is not a problem that any single discipline of science or any single country can solve. It will take all of us working as partners to co-create solutions that address these challenges.
This year, 2022, marks 75 years of U.S.-India diplomatic ties. Our two countries have shared a rich and fruitful history of collaboration and support for scientific research and education. As we look toward the future and the possibilities enabled by a new generation of young, talented scientists worldwide, I have no doubt that the United States and India will continue to push the frontiers of scientific discovery and innovation.
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the global economy and every other aspect of human life. How did this affect NSF’s goals and strategies?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the science and engineering community was challenged to tackle many unknown aspects and effects of the pandemic. We saw many opportunities for researchers to use their expertise and training to help us understand and mitigate the disease itself and to broadly help our society cope with the vast economic and societal aspects of the pandemic.
I am proud to say that NSF and the research community rose to that challenge, and we invested in more than 1,200 rapid response research projects in a very short period of time. Those NSF-fueled research projects discovered important things about the nature of the pandemic, such as how the virus spreads and how to best detect it, its impact on the economy and supply chains, the effects on childhood education and many other vital areas.
This demonstrates NSF’s agility to respond to emerging challenges faced by society. I see this as an affirmation of NSF’s core values and our goals as an organization to support the scientific enterprise and create lasting value for people.
Climate change is a serious challenge, especially in India. In what ways can innovation and technology help us?
I strongly believe that scientific innovation and cooperation can show us the path to any outcome we want to realize, and that includes creating a prosperous and healthy future for everyone. For example, India has set ambitious goals for renewable energy production and strengthening climate resilience. Scientific and technological innovation will be a powerful tool in achieving those goals.
Collaborations between NSF and India will advance our shared ability to ensure resilience in areas such as human health, climate, agriculture and transportation. For example, NSF supports collaborative research in the physical sciences, engineering and the social sciences, which aim to address challenges in climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience. Those collaborative projects include work on solar technologies, offshore wind, reducing methane emissions, carbon capture, power grid stabilization and much more.
Scaling up such collaborative efforts can amplify their long-term value and impact. We must also work together to make the process of collaboration and shared innovation as efficient as possible so that our countries, and the world, can reap the benefits.
At IIT Delhi, you spoke about creating new pathways so that talent from every demographic and community can join the STEM community. What is one key factor that will encourage more young people to make long-term contributions in STEM fields?
One of the most powerful ways we can get students interested in pursuing STEM careers is by fostering the innovative mindset that resides in all of us. It is critical to infuse STEM learning at an early age and spark curiosity-driven thinking in each and every person.
We are all explorers from the moment we are born. I see that every day through my granddaughter. She is curious about everything and is so excited to explore and understand the world around her.
This is an innate curiosity we are all born with. It is what made me want to get into science. When I was 8 years old, my father took me to the U.S. Consulate in my hometown of Chennai to see moon rocks brought back by the Apollo 11 astronauts. I was absolutely transfixed by the idea that humans could design and execute a mission to the moon, get these rocks, and bring them back for young children in India who would be inspired by them.
That early experience is what sparked my interest in science—and it is something that everyone can experience. Curiosity is something we must cultivate and nurture in young people. We must empower youngsters with a can-do spirit and help them recognize that they can indeed do anything.
You have often talked about the need to make STEM education inclusive and accessible to all. Why is that important to you?
To remain at the vanguard of discovery and innovation, it is imperative that global science leaders like the United States and India leverage every bit of talent to engage in fundamental discoveries, design novel approaches and build transformative technologies. I believe the key to doing that is by harnessing the ingenuity that exists in communities of every size and type, from big cities to rural towns.
Before I came to NSF, I was at Arizona State University where we chose to expand access to higher education for students from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds with diverse experiences. This helped enrich our classrooms and laboratories in ways that you simply cannot put a price on.
You have years of experience in research and academia in the United States. What would be your advice for Indian students who want to pursue higher studies or research in the United States?
For students in India and around the world, as you go forward on your own journey, I ask you to keep an open mind and always engage your curiosity to know more about the world around you. You must experiment and you must experience. You must continue to stay involved, take risks, make connections and find mentors.
I am deeply grateful for the education and opportunities that both India and the United States have provided me, and I feel compelled to make it a priority that this same access to opportunity is available to absolutely anyone who has the determination to harness their innovative spirit.